In this post by Dr Paul Wetherly, Reader in Politics, he takes a critical look at whether Britain is a Christian country.
In his ‘Easter message’ this year David Cameron has declared that we should have ‘the confidence to say yes, we are a Christian country and we are proud of it’. This confidence should come from a set of ‘Christian values’ that ‘have helped to make our country what it is today’, that are ‘at the heart of … [numerous] … acts of kindness and courage’ and that ‘we treasure’. These values are identified as ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion and pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities’.
Who is the ‘we’ in these statements? If these are Christian values (which is contestable – given the Church’s pre-occupation, it might be expected that so-called sexual morality would be on the list) then it might be fair enough to say that Christians should be proud of them and the good works in which they engage and that are inspired by them. However it is a big leap from this Christian ‘we’ to say that we as a nation, comprised of people with a plurality of religious identities and none, can or should share in the celebration of a ‘Christian country’. Even if it is true, as Cameron claims, that the values ‘speak to everyone in Britain’, this simply raises the question in what sense these can be seen as distinctively Christian values. Non-Christians who are committed to, say, ‘working for the common good’ will treasure this value for their own independent reasons and not because it is (also) a Christian value, and they will not want to be corralled into a vision of a Christian country.
The meaning of ‘a Christian country’
There are three ways in which we might understand the claim that Britain is a Christian country: historical, official and cultural. Two of these understandings are persuasive:
- Historical: Britain is historically a Christian country or has a Christian heritage. Every Western country is religious in these terms since in the past religion was the universal basis of belief. Therefore it is true that Christian values ‘have helped to make our country what it is today’. This can be seen in the second persuasive understanding which is
- Official: Britain has an official or established Anglican church, with Bishops in the legislature and the head of state as defender of the faith.
But Cameron suggests a third understanding, upon which the legitimacy of the official status of the Church arguably rests, which is
- Cultural: Christianity plays a significant or pervasive role in British society, in terms of the way people think about their identities, beliefs and values
How persuasive is this understanding? What does the evidence tell us about the extent to which Britain is a Christian country in this sense or, more generally, a religious country?
The last two UK censuses have included a question on religious identity or affiliation (‘What is your religion?’). The 2011 census found that the most significant trends since 2001 were
- an increase in the population reporting no religion – from 14.8 per cent of the population in 2001 to 25.1 per cent in 2011,
- a drop in the population reporting to be Christian – from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, and
- an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent in 2001 to 4.8 per cent in 2011.
Figure 1. Religious affiliation, England and Wales, 2011 (Source: ONS 2012)
These data appear to provide some support for Cameron’s claim. Britain appears as a majority Christian county (59%) and a predominantly religious country (68%). However society is less Christian than in 2001 and, although ‘other’ affiliation has increased, society is less religious, with an overall decline of religious affiliation from 78% to 68%.
The Report of the Commission On Religion And Belief In British Public Life (2015) confirms these data, except that it finds that affiliation to Christianity, and religion more generally, is lower, and the decline in affiliation is shown over a longer period (1983-2014). The report identifies three trends as a result of which ‘Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition’:
- The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious …
- The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation… Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten …
- The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
Fig.2. Change in religious affiliation among adults in Great Britain, 1983-2014 (Source: Commission On Religion And Belief In British Public Life, 2015: 17).
The lower religious affiliation in these findings compared to the census might be due to the different wording of the question. In this case respondents were asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? IF YES: Which?’. The term ‘belonging’ may suggest a stronger notion of membership than the merely formal identification that may be elicited by the census question ‘What is your religion?’ Comparing these data more closely, it is interesting that the difference appears to be accounted for almost entirely by Christians. Whereas 59% identify their religion as Christianity in the census, only 42% say they ‘belong’ to this religion. In contrast, the proportion ‘belonging’ to a non-Christian religion (8%) is the same as that which identifies a religion other than Christianity in the census (8.4%).
In sum, according to the NatCen data reported by the Commission, Britain is not a majority Christian country. It has been transformed from a majority Christian country in 1983 (67%) to a minority Christian country in 2014 (42%). While belonging to a religion other than Christianity has increased (from 2% to 8%) this has only partially offset the decline of Christianity so that overall religious belonging has declined (from 69% to 50%). The result is that the population is divided almost equally between those who profess a religious affiliation and those with none. Furthermore, the general decline in Christian affiliation form 67% to 42% between 1983 and 2014 identified in the NatCen data is almost entirely accounted for by the decline recorded for ‘Church of England / Anglican’, from 40% to 17%, while ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Other Christian’ belonging has been stable (Fig.2).
The census only measures religious identity and does not tell us how important this identity is in people’s lives. People who identify as Christian might, at one end of a spectrum, do so in a merely formal way, simply on the basis of background (e.g.that they were baptised) even though they regard religion as not at all important in their lives. Self-identification as Christian can also be an expression of national identity (reflecting the idea that Britain is a Christian country). At this end of the spectrum people are Christian in name only. At the other end are people for whom Christianity is very important as a guide to how they should live, not just in their private lives but also including social and political action. Similarly ‘belonging’ can mean different things to different people. Thus we need to go beyond identity or affiliation to look at evidence of religious belief and practice. Does identity or belonging translate into expressing key religious beliefs or engaging in important religious practices?
Belief and practice
The relationship between religious identity, belief and practice is not straightforward. This is because people who express a religious identity might not all be committed to the beliefs and practices or have different levels and forms of commitment, and because there is disagreement about the beliefs and practices. It seems reasonable to say that a Christian is someone who not only expresses this as an identity but shares the beliefs and engages in the practices that are essential to the religion. These might include: beliefs such as in the existence of a personal God, that Jesus was the son of God, that he rose from the dead and that eternal life in Heaven awaits after death; and practices such as prayer and church attendance.
On the other hand, the beliefs and practices are contested – there are doctrinal disputes and, it can be argued, many ways to be a Christian. For example, there are many sincere Christians who rarely or never attend church and do not see such attendance as a necessary part of their faith. The contested nature of beliefs and practices ‘produces a boundary problem for each religious tradition: what is essential to the faith – the sine qua non of adherence to the tradition – and what is merely incidental (or perhaps ‘desirable but not essential’) for the true believer?’ (Macey & Carling, 2011: 12). And this problem is confounded by the further one that authority – who gets to say where the boundary is located – is also contested.
Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, nobody believes that anyone can simply define for themselves what it means to be a Christian, and this means we can identify generally recognised or conventional beliefs and practices, such as those already mentioned, that make it possible to measure the prevalence of Christianity in these terms.
One way of measuring religious practice is to ask people ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing member of a religion?’ This subjective measure leaves respondents to decide for themselves what ‘practicing’ entails. Using this question, in 2015 YouGov found only 32% of respondents in Britain described themselves as practicing Christians, while 3% practiced a religion other than Christianity and 62% would not describe themselves as being a practicing member of a religion.
An objective measure of practice can be obtained by looking at people’s involvement in specific practices such as church attendance. Far fewer people actually engage in this practice than regard themselves as ‘practicing’ Christians. According to data published by the Church of England (Statistics for Mission 2014) ‘On average, 980,000 people [of all ages] attended church each week in October2014’, with average Sunday attendance of 760,000 (Archbishops’ Council 2016). The weekly attendance is about 1.8% of the population served by CoE churches and suggests that a very small proportion – around 1 in 10 – of those ‘belonging’ to the Church of England in the NatCen data express this belonging in weekly church attendance (though we don’t know whether the 980,000 is the same group of people attending every week or a larger group attending less often). It might be argued that the boundary enclosing true believers should be drawn more widely than those attending church on a weekly basis. The figure for Christmas attendance in 2014 was 2.4 million, still a small fraction of those belonging and arguably drawing the boundary too widely. Further, low church attendance today reflects a long term process of decline: ‘Numbers attending church services have fallen by 12% in the past decade, to less than half the levels of the 1960s’.
Turning from practice to belief, the YouGov survey found that minorities believe that ‘Jesus Christ was/is the son of God’ (30%) or that ‘Jesus probably did come back to life after being crucified’ (29%). Beliefs about the existence of God were as follows:
‘I believe there is a God’ (35%)
‘I do not believe in a God, but do believe there is some sort of spiritual higher power’ (20%)
‘I do not believe in any sort of God or higher spiritual power’ (34%)
Other data for 2008 suggest lower figures for both atheism and belief in God in Britain:
‘I don’t believe in God’ 18%
‘I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it’ 16.8%.
But the trend of beliefs is in the direction of atheism and away from belief in God. ‘The number of professed atheists in Britain increased, relatively modestly, by 8% between 1991 and 2008, as did the figure for those who had never believed in God. During the same period there was a 6% decline in people certain that God exists and also in those thinking that God concerns Himself with every human being personally’.
- A majority of people express a Christian identity (59%), but
- Only a minority of people express a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the Christian religion (42%).
- Fewer people (about 1 in 3) regard themselves as ‘practicing’ Christians, though a tiny proportion, less than 2%, attend church on an average week.
- According to some figures, about 1 in 3 are ‘believers’ in terms of key aspects of Christian doctrine such as the existence of God.
- The evidence shows that Christianity is declining in terms of all three dimensions: identity, practice and belief.
The claim that ‘Britain is a Christian country’ in the cultural sense – which is the sense of Cameron’s remarks – is clearly not tenable, and Britain is becoming a steadily less Christian country. Other religions, particularly what are sometimes termed ‘immigrant religions’, have grown, as measured in terms of identity and belonging, but not enough to prevent Britain steadily becoming a less religious country.
In other words, these trends are consistent with the secularisation thesis – ‘a long-term tendency by which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose their significance’ (Macey & Carling, 2011: 14). Religious beliefs and practices are progressively weakening and Britain is becoming increasingly secular.
Religion and statecraft
Still, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, clearly have not lost their significance entirely. And so Cameron’s remarks can be understood in terms of statecraft – as an attempt to cement political and electoral support among a particular section of the population on the basis of a religiously-defined identity. To strengthen this appeal, Cameron has not only stated that Britain is a Christian country and that we should be proud of this fact but also, in previous remarks, emphasised his own commitment to Christianity (indeed his evangelism) and advocated a larger role for Christianity in politics.
Whether Cameron’s remarks are well-judged in their own terms – as an exercise in statecraft – is questionable given the disinclination to ‘do God’ in British political life. More important, describing Britain as a Christian nation automatically excludes non-Christians who are implicitly defined as ‘other’. To the extent that a shared sense of national identity is desirable (which is debatable) it must, as the Parekh report argued in 2000, incorporate the diverse identities and beliefs of contemporary Britain.
Of even greater concern, by linking the view of Britain as a Christian nation to the struggle against Islamist ‘terrorists [who] try to destroy our way of life’, Cameron’s remarks feed the erroneous narrative that this is a religious struggle between Christianity and Islamism.
Paul Wetherly is Reader in Politics in the Politics & Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) Group.